The Eternal Attraction of Doomed Youth


I love the word salmagundi. Up until 3 minutes ago I thought it was salmagunda, which I liked, but Google has confirmed it’s salmagundi and I think you’ll agree that the ‘i’ improves it no end. Anyway. It’s a salad from olden times that seemed to involve throwing everything you could possibly think of on a huge plate, from fish to flowers, and chowing down in a Henry the Eighth manner for hours on end. Sounds lush. But that’s not why I’m talking about salmagundi. Over the past month, I have read a glut of brilliant, yet wildly unrelated books. I can thank my ongoing charity bookshop addiction for my literary buffet bar – if anyone out there hasn’t spent at least one Saturday afternoon wandering about the second hand book shops of their town they haven’t really lived. Here are my top picks.

A Woman’s World

womans world

This is certainly the strangest premise for a book since, well, since I read the The Librarian. I can’t quite decide wither it’s brilliant or terrible. A Woman’s World is all about a lady in  1950s white suburban Britain who  is kept in her house by  her brother and her overattentive housekeeper. Because she’s bored and lonely and has no other terms of reference she filters everything she experiences through advice she’s picked up in women’s magazines of the day. However, not all is as it seems (it rarely is).

I would love to be able to talk about why I’m fundamentally unsure about the situation in which this heroine finds herself but to do so would ruin the book for you.  I think that it could be argued that, instead of shining light on a particular state of mind, this book fetishizes it and plays up to stereotypes which are not helpful. But, I’m not sure if that’s actually the case or if I’m being overly sensitive. Certainly the book describes the life of people whose stories would have been, at the time, studiously ignored. I don’t feel well enough qualified to say whether this is exploitative or illuminating and so I’d love to hear what readers with more experience of the issues explored thought.

The book’s main gimmick is that it is written entirely though painstakingly hand cut and glued excerpts from women’s magazines. This is a physical feat which I cannot get my head around, and if you read it you’ll see what I mean. How did Graham Rawle actually manage to do it? That in itself makes A Woman’s World well worth a read.

WW close up page2
You see what I mean? How did he do this?!?!

I realise that I’ve been very obtuse about this book in order to keep it’s secrets.  Definitely a worthwhile read though, and I wish I could discuss at length with other people who’ve read it, so get in touch if you have. If you’re looking for a book club suggestion, this would be a prime candidate, particularly if you’re interested in women in literature.

I’ve already said too much. Read it and get back to me.

The Motorcycle Diaries

che guevara

This is obviously a super intelligent and high brow book blog that people looking for serious reviews of classic literature read, and so I’m ashamed about what I’m going to say, but I feel it is best to address the elephant in the room and then move on.

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was HOT. I mean, like a summer’s day in the Sahara, the surface of Venus, Keanu Reeves in the 1990’s, Thor, the Norse God of Thunder (as portrayed by Chris Hemsworth the superhot), HOT. As a second rate politics geek I would like to make it clear that the pickin’s are thin in our line of work (although I don’t trust anyone who is immune to the charms of Justin Trudeau with pandas)

It’s pandatime!

But Che? Yep. I have a new crush. If you could see me now you would be disappointed to note that I am fanning myself in a comical way while typing.

He’s dreamy. 

I’m objectifying mid twentieth century political revolutionaries. I’ll move on.

Because of my second rate political geekery I thought I would find it very difficult to read this without having to analyse the birth of south american left wing politics, and wade through socialist economic theory so dense even Keir Hardie would run for the Andes. I have a great line in ‘looking baffled’  at work – there’s no attraction for me in replicating that in my down time. It’s the reason I’ve avoided reading The Motorcycle Diaries for so long. Here’s what I missed.

  1. ‘Che’ isn’t his name. It’s Ernesto. Che means ‘mate’, or ‘pal’, in Argentinian. I think that the fact that he’s remembered as ‘friend’ says as much about him as any academic biography ever could.
  2. I have no idea about the viability of this socialist economic theories , but if he were here today I’d advise Ernesto to stay clear of love poetry- it is not his strong suit. However, if giving the love of your life a puppy named ‘come back’ doesn’t work, nothing will.
  3. I’d also advise him that if a motorbike breaks down before leaving your own country and irreparably so before you’re halfway home, naming it ‘the powerful one’ is (unintentionally) hysterically funny.
  4. Assuming Che was absolutely confident in his plan to set off around a huge subcontinent with one friend, no plan, and no money, I’d suggest that he took two motorbikes rather than being one half of world record beating ‘backie’.
If someone tries to sell you this bike, WALK AWAY.

He was right about the important bits though. The best way to help people learn about your country, the time you live in, and the desperate situations of people who live there, is to do it with humour and humanity. I’m no expert, but generally speaking revolutionaries generally want to be your leader. They’ll not be too bothered about the methods they use they convince you . The Motorcycle Diaries teach almost nothing about revolutionary politics, and when it does it uses the lightest touch, but what comes singing out is that Che would have been a really, really good mate.

I’m sad that I’ve put off reading The Motorcycle Diaries for so long. A book that embodies the joy of being young and free and eye wateringly stupid will obviously alienate the old. I’m no longer able to envy Ernesto and Alberto for their hair raising schemes to liberate wine from a barbecue in which they are working. I have to look in through a window  at their adventures, and daydream about packing all of my responsibilities in and heading off over the horizon to join them.

The most touching part of the book comes from Che’s father’s afterword. His memory of watching his smiling boy waving to him as he gets off the plane reminded me that I’m not a kid dreaming of motorbikes and adventure any more, I’m a parent. I’m so sorry for any other parent that has, for whatever reason, had to bury their beautiful, joyous, and irreplaceable children.

The Magicians


This trilogy of novels by Lev Grossman (Hello fellow literary critic! Your existence gives me hope that I one day will harbour enough of my own ideas and determination to write the next great Scottish novel!) is my current guilty pleasure, in that it’s firmly set in the young adult and fantasy genre. I don’t feel so guilty about this, though, after having read the author’s excellent defense of the post modernism young adult supermarket novel  and I’m happily buried in the middle of book two right now. It’s a self aware fantasy about what would happen if some modern day dissafected teens discovered that Narnia was real. And Harry Potter. And Oz. It’s a tightly plotted and fast moving adventure with some truly strange and brilliant cul de sacs where the author wonders out loud what magic would actually look like if it inhabited this world. Also what it would be like to be a migrating goose – flipping amazing.

My other great love in life is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My favorite quote in Buffy is ‘the hardest thing in this world is to live in it’. SO true Buff, So true.

Seriously, how do teenagers these days navigate the world without the Scooby Gang to help them? I fear for today’s youth.

Anyway, I bring this up here because I think one of the best part of The Magicians is that it soberly looks at what happens after the adventure ends and the hero goes back to make his way in the normal world. What is the point of power when you have unlimited supplies? If you could do everything would you actually do anything? Why is it that the heroes of these fantasy novels are so often children?

These deep and meaningful meditations are, as Julia says in book two, why she avoided college and late night dope sessions in first year bedrooms. But here they are expertly woven into a tight plot and snappy turn of phrase. The one thing I would say is that sometimes Quentin et all run straight past millennial angst into the pretentious waters of Dawson’s Creek chat. No one is that smart assed and pop culture referential and I say this as a smart assed pop cultural reference junkie – as my love of the Slayer mentioned above attests. Despite that one niggle, I’m very much looking forward to reading book three.

Wow this is a long post. Stay tuned for the rest of my salmagundi of June – next time I’ll chat about The Bell Jar (awesome line in pre millenial angst) and The Bullet Trick, a hard boiled crime caper set in Glasgow and Berlin.



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